Heirs to Still Being or Having? - Cellular Philosophy

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Cellular Philosophy

Could cells have a philosophy? If so, what might it be? And what model might we imagine to represent it? Amongst the different possible ways of defining “philosophy”, the following might be useful: “Conception of something based upon a set of principles; these principles .” (Larousse Dictionary - English translation). “General conception, more or less organized vision of the world and of life’s challenges” (Grand Robert - English translation). However, when applied to the cellular dimension, these definitions are particularly diminished. What fundamental principles and major motivations drive the cell? For me, it boiled down to living or surviving, as the simplest, most evident expression of perpetuating existence. And, almost inevitably, this led to the concept of being, which has been challenging the human intellect for a very long time, and which I have focused upon in order to devise a workable model. It is this model that I wish to present here.

Cellular Consciousness

The concept of being probably takes us back to the ladder of causality’s highest rung. But what does being mean? The dictionary has many things to say, but nothing relating to the essence, the mechanism, the act of being. Being, existing, is the effect of a decision: I am. I am defines a central, fulcrum me, in relation to an environment that I consider external and different to me, and that I define or consider as not-me.

In order to be, one must become separate, one must go through a process of individuation. There is differentiation. The above echoes the following definition given by Spencer, who was a great inspiration to Still: “Schelling said that Life is the tendency to individuation. This formula, until studied, conveys little meaning. But we need only consider it as illustrated by the facts of development, or by the contrast between lower and higher forms of life, to recognize its significance; especially in respect of comprehensiveness.” (Spencer, 1866, 1898, V.1, 79). As soon as a living system exists, as an individual entity, it knows that it exists independently from its environment, and its environment knows of its existence. There is a consciousness. The word consciousness borrows from two Latin roots: co from cum “with”, which suggests association (as in coexistence, cognisance, etc.) and scire “to know”.

To be conscious and conscious of one’s consciousness…

We have trouble fathoming cellular consciousness because we associate the concept of consciousness with our ability to watch ourselves be. We confuse being conscious with being conscious of our consciousness. And this confused concept of consciousness is an abstraction that we unconsciously project into our observation of life. As so-called inferior species are not (ostensibly…) equipped with the same capacity for abstraction as us, we deduce that they are not conscious. When in reality, they just do not have the same consciousness as us. The confusion lies in the degree of abstraction.

To be conscious is to exist, quite simply. Or in other words, to exist is to be conscious. The two are indissociable. And to live, is to experience being or consciousness. Therefore, one can say that all living beings, from the most simple to the most complex, are conscious. Furthermore, all living beings will do everything they can to preserve their consciousness, that is to say their state of being or existence. It is in this behavior that mechanisms as complex as immunity and homeostasis find their origin.

Self-consciousness appears to have grown as organisms have evolved: “In the beginning, the ‘perception of self’ is imprecise. It then unfolds with greater and greater precision, presumably as a result of behaviors stemming from the instinct to survive. However, it is very difficult to say much more. We probably do not even have the words. (Reeves, 1986, 186 - English translation).

To be conscious of our consciousness would appear to be our prerogative, as Homo sapiens, radically differentiating us from so-called inferior living systems. Indeed, the very fact that it is possible to be conscious of our consciousness suggests the existence of an I that is distinct from the organism’s I, and that controls it - just like drivers control theis cars, or coachmen controlled their horses, a metaphor often used in Hindu philosophy.